What You’re Thinking Now Is a Chunk of Marble
“The readjustment to gravity was not always easy. Jack Lousma, for example, accidentally let a bottle of aftershave lotion smash on the bathroom floor when he momentarily forgot that he could no longer let the bottle hang in midair, as he could in the zero gravity aboard Skylab. Fellow astronaut Owen Garriott lost his balance on his first evening back home when his wife turned off the lights as they were going upstairs to bed. ‘I can’t stand up unless I have a visual reference,’ he complained. Helen Garriott flicked the lights back on and his balance was restored.”
—Readjusting to Gravity, Time Magazine, October 15, 1973
A branch cracks. Eric calls my name, and as I raise my eyes, the top of my head explodes in a cold star of pain. My idea, for him to climb up and wait in the leaves where we’d hoped to build the treehouse. My idea, to stand beneath. Also my idea to secure the two-by-four with a bow knot—assuming it would stay balanced as I jerked the rope’s other end, and it rose through the sugar maple. The next thing, I’m coming to in the arms of my crying friend. His mother runs out and helps me into the kitchen where I wait on a stool near the sink as she phones my mother. She hands me a piece of yellow cake on a plate. I eat that piece and she hands me another.
If I fall to the deck, no problem. If I miss the deck, problem—I’ll tumble one further story onto the driveway. That must be why Sarah’s popsicled with fear holding the ladder. “Next year,” she says, “we’ll buy a bigger ladder and you’ll get to the roof from the backyard.” Clambering onto the shingles ready to pull leaf muck from the gutters, noticing that it’s been a long time since I was on a roof. I’m almost dizzy now, especially close to an edge. I keep this to myself, ask Sarah to go get my camera and take a picture of me up here with my trowel. I assume a nonchalant air as she taps the screen, adding, “Hurry up now and get down.”
Approaching the edge looking out over the valley. Seeing nothing, no ladder, no deck, I tell myself, Take this slowly. Pay attention to what you’re doing. I sit on the roof edge, let my legs dangle into the void. Scoot forward. Finally I see the top of the ladder—this is not a step—Sarah underneath gripping the wood and looking up at me as if I’d already fallen. My feet meet wood. The ladder shimmies. I step onto the next rung, still facing away from the house, the pines along the slope, the road below that. With one fist, I grip the roof behind, turn slowly to face the house, and continue my way down. Stepping onto the deck, I reach to pry each of her hands from the sides of the ladder.
What I know about gravity is this: every object in the universe attracts every other with a force equal to their masses divided by the square of the distance between them. So, gravity pulls us all to one another; it’s just a matter of how big you are versus how far apart you find yourselves. Between little things, like you and me and the cat, we can’t feel it. With big things, like mother earth and you and me and the cat, we feel us tiny things being pulled toward the center of the massive thing. In space, it makes things orbit the sun, the moon circle us, the earth plow the same fields of meteoroids every year. We slip, we fall. We drop a box of cocktail toothpicks. They hit the floor exploding in a multicolored mess we sort of want to applaud until we remember we’ll have to clean them all up before the cat tries to swallow one.
In the yard, with nothing but a shirt on, I picture myself flopping onto the lawn face-first and not moving. Then I think of you coming home, finding me and thinking I’d had a heart attack. I picture you in a split-second trauma and give up the idea. I go inside and put on mambo music, thinking that will be a nice ambiance for when you come home from the hardware store. We’ve eaten hardly any of the two bags of tart Northern Spies bought at the apple festival last week. I doubted we would, but you were so excited to get a second bag after tasting one from the first. That’s why I’d asked, at the information kiosk hours earlier, if they had an ATM. The kid silently reached outside the window to point at the machine three feet to my left. The security guard next to him looked at me. I accepted the $3.75 surcharge to make sure I’d have enough cash to say yes if you wanted a second bag of the pale green near-spheres, each about the size of your face. You had to revolve the fruit, then your head, to get the first bite. Like two planets meeting in space. Or like someone trying to sink her teeth into a wall.
SARAH: A billion kajillion years ago, some meteorites fell in an area that is now a town called Brenham, in western Kansas, in Kiowa County. Then, about a billion kajillion years later, my grandpa Elmer Hoffmeister bought some land near Brenham—Brenham itself is not really a town, it’s a grain elevator with the word Brenham at the top—and began farming it. My grandpa passed away ten years ago, and that land went to my grandma Menta. My grandma passed away eight years ago, and my mom inherited the parcel of land. It turns out that a meteorite hunter figured out that there were some, down there, and they’re called pallasites. So, he dug up a couple, and one of them was worth $35,000 or something like that crazy. And so my mom and dad gave us some money so we could put a down payment on a house, which is why we call the house Brenham Rise, because it was made out of a meteorite that fell in Brenham about a kajillion years ago. The end.
ME: Not “the end” yet.
SARAH: People take these meteorites, and they cut them into pieces and make them into jewelry. They are really beautiful. My mom gave us a slice, and we put it in a little frame and stuck it beside the sink.
ME: [Goes into the kitchen to fetch the meteorite. Places it in her hand.] What does it look like?
SARAH: It’s got browns and reds and yellow and whites. It’s polished so it’s shiny—there’s this one part that looks like an ice crystal, but it’s not an ice crystal. It looks a little bit like a map.
ME: What does it look like a map of?
SARAH: It looks like a map of a place that we don’t know about yet.
It’s true, we’ve found a few apples on the back lawn. Holding one of the gnarled, yellowish knots, we peer up the slope into the woods, searching out the familiar apple tree shape. So far, no luck. Either they’re dropping upon us from the stars, or there’s a tree far enough up the hill to be obscured, except for what reaches us on its slow roll down toward the street and beyond that to the center of the earth. “Or maybe it’s squirrels,” Sarah adds. “Yeah,” I say, “maybe that.”
A partial list of things known to have fallen unexpectedly out of the sky: meat, sugar, diamonds, frogs, spiders, nondairy creamer, fish, golf balls, blood, mud, doors, a shark, a cow, hay, corn, sodium polyacrylate, a puppy, poison, worms, star jelly, sewage, stones, money, a canoe paddle, apples, human bodies.
It’s true, along a different end of our backyard, we sometimes find black walnuts in the lawn. Holding one of these richly perfumed, heavy spheres in the hand, we look up into the woods. Not a walnut tree in sight. I look at Sarah. She looks at my hand, takes the pale sphere with its sandpapery skin and tosses it back up the slope. Maybe it’ll grow a walnut tree, and then we’ll know where they’re coming from.
I’ll just come right out and say it—I’m on a long journey and not sure where to. I don’t think I want to reach the end. What’s there I haven’t got already, or left when I first set out? It feels so good to stretch the legs. And to find love. What won’t we do? I’ll follow you to the apple festival. I love apples. Tents full of cinnamon draft excluders, glitter-dipped pinecones, and vegan dog nibbles— organic or otherwise—not so much. All around us, right now, orchards, skies worth of Zestars hanging by the tops of their heads, quivering in the early autumn heat. The earth down there as always—out of which the tree grew—with its jaws open, teeth you can’t see but feel if you walk barefoot. Discovering the dull metal flake in what would have been my last bite of pulled pork, thinking what have I already eaten? This morning, weeks later, I’m still alive. You’re away on a business trip—before I opened my eyes I reached for your cold pillow, forming the shape with my arms where you should be.
I bring a book, a Golden Delicious apple, something to drink, and lay back against the shingles to spend the afternoon with Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators. Then I toss down my book and empty Coke can—the apple core I release over the side facing my pet pygmy goat’s pen. Dangling my legs into the air over the side, I scoot forward and let gravity take me. Believing I’ve discovered a new way of lessening the impact of a body with the earth, I land with my legs bent at the knee, touch the ground with both my hands, then leap back into the air as if the earth were a trampoline. When I grow up, I’ll share my technique with NASA.
During a birthday party, I convince a half dozen of my little friends that the next fun thing to do would be to all go jump off the garage roof. This we do, over and over, flinging our bodies into the air, hitting the earth, bouncing back, checking for broken bones, getting out of the way of the next guy, clambering back up along the foot holes of the goat fence. From there, we balance on the wobbly wooden top rail to reach the lowest edge of the roof, pull ourselves up, get a leg over, and presto, we’re up again. We continue this circuit until one of my brothers comes running from the house, screaming at us to stop.
Lying on our backs listening to Cal Tjader’s “Leyte,” I watch a spider walk across the ceiling. What if it lets go? It’ll plop onto the carpet and go on crawling. If a mouse drops down a mine shaft, it arrives at the bottom and keeps on running. If a beetle belly flops from the topmost branches of a Crimson King, it barely smacks the sod, continues scuttling, unlikely to even notice what’s happened. What if our lives on this planet were like theirs? Tonight I’m spending on the ceiling because I can. Want to swing up to the corner to pick up a fifth? Just stride right off the balcony—it’s the quickest way from the record player to the car. Land in the driveway, softly as stepping out of a bath. Amble up the side of the house to get back inside. If we lose our footing, we float until we stop floating, we hit the ground and keep on going.
What I know about that famous photograph of Yves Klein swan diving into an empty street below is he made it up. Photographers shot him jumping from a Paris roof into a tarp held by a dozen of his Judo buddies. They stuck the top half of that picture onto the bottom of one of the empty street—no Judo enthusiasts, just a solitary cyclist peddling away in the distance. Above all that pavement, there’s Yves Klein—a man famous for inventing his own shade of blue—floating with his arms out, his eyes fixed on the sky. As the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon writes: “My first and purest painting,” Klein would say when he was older, pointing upwards, adding that he hated birds because “they keep trying to make holes in it.”
Despite stiff competition from Ziploc baggies of Coca-Cola and children’s teeth, I receive the honor of being one of nine students from my middle school’s science fair to progress to the next level. My project (don’t laugh): Can Black Holes Be Used as Interdimensional Portholes and Time Machines? Attaching a circle of black felt around a loop of coat hanger wire, I cut a hole in the center and glue the mouth of a felt cone. Then I snip off the tip of this witch’s hat to make it a funnel. The point of singularity—the mathematical idea concentrating the gravity at the center of every black hole—I leave mathematical. For the experiment, I spin ball bearings—symbolizing a spaceship—down the funnel. They hit the garage’s dirt floor in little gray puffs. Success! With my $15 gift certificate to the Inside Story Book Store in my pocket, I head to the Northeastern Ohio Science and Engineering Fair up in Cleveland, where for three hours I wave my arms in front of fifteen judges, quoting whatever I can remember from my favorite science books: The Tao of Physics, In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, and The Dancing Wu Li Masters.
From my diary: March 28, 1987. Saturday I was given the awards for science fair. I received a third place ribbon and a bronze medal in my Earth/Space 8-9 category which I was mad at. I then got a letter and check for $25 from the Northern Ohio Science Teachers Association (or something like that), a certificate from NASA, and a dictionary of astronomy from the trustees of the fair. This made me very happy! After that two hour thing was over at 1:00 pm, mom, dad, and me went out to dinner at Ponderosa.
Riding home that evening, full of charbroiled ribeye, flush with all my third place booty, our car pulls up to a four-way stop outside Solon, a town named for one of the Seven Wise Men of Ancient Greece who said, “In all things let reason be your guide.” Looking over into a well-mown lawn, the cone of my black hole crimping against the seat beside me, I observe a dog defecating. Somewhere, I’ve heard that if you look at a dog having a crap, you’ll get a sty in your eye. I don’t know what a sty in the eye is, but I look away, anyway.
What I know about being killed by someone throwing a penny from the top of a skyscraper is, you won’t be. The coin’s lightness and flatness mean it’ll flutter down like an autumn leaf. If it did hit you it would feel like being flicked in the forehead—but not very hard.
Maple leaves and random grasses freeze each night, thaw in the sun and wind, then freeze again. I’m still alive. You’re still alive. We still get a kick out of lighting a candle and sitting around the glow. Every few days, I remove an apple or two from the bowl, arrange those left towards some aesthetic ideal in my head I can’t see but use as a yardstick. Spots proliferate. We keep not eating the apples left. I like to think because we want to have them to look at.
SARAH: In eighth grade I went to state music contest and played a piece on my trumpet called Power Station. My mom was my accompanist. I got a one plus on it, and we came home, and I don’t remember why, but I was so wazzed-out overstimulated that my mom and dad got me a whole box of Twix candy bars. I’d succeeded, but it wasn’t altogether pleasant. And so we came home, and I got out of my fancy clothes, and I climbed up on the roof and ate like more Twix than a person probably should eat at one sitting.
ME: How many’s that?
SARAH: Four packs. [Pauses for this to sink in.] I won a one plus, and then I got to perform at a big show in Topeka a few months later with all the other kids who made a one plus.
ME: Is a one plus good?
SARAH: Yeah, it’s the top. You could get a one plus, a one, a one minus, a two plus, a two, or a two minus. I think after that they’re like, “Please get out of here because you suck.”
ME: Why do you think you went to the shed roof to eat your Twix bars after winning?
SARAH: To be alone.
ME: And were you alone?
SARAH: Yes, I was.
Everybody has to go out of town now and then. Still, sleeping alone—I can’t say I’ve missed it, these fifteen years. If the moon came close enough to tickle its silty underbelly, that’s fine. But still, it’s you I want to reach over and feel in the night. I might bump a nose, apologize to you in your dreams. Another meteor shower this weekend. They seem to come at us so often. You’re coming home tonight. I’ve tidied the house—a little too tidy—desperation-level clean. The snow blown from the drive. People—delivery drivers, cocktail guests—ask how we manage half up a hill. We press the gas and the car carries us up like a mom. You’ll come through the door and shout for me. I’ll respond, wherever I am.
On the campus of Kent State University, staging a mock light-saber battle against the floodlit Fashion School for our friends at the party across the street. As this thrill fades—hey, let’s climb a tree! Probably my idea. I clamber past my friend, up through the dark maple’s purple leaves, into the thinnest branches, swaying against the starry sky. I’ve done this before. I know how to brace my feet against the trunk where the young limbs are strongest.
Two seconds later, plummeting straight down, arms above my head, rough twigs scrape my back as they yank up my t-shirt, my hands grasping at air. I don’t remember passing my friend on a lower branch. I don’t remember landing. I remember coming to in his arms and the sound of fear in his voice. Back at the party, some pre-med student cleans my wounds as I lay on the kitchen floor thanking him and watching people’s shoes maneuver around my skull. Dozing on a couch later, I hear my friends on the porch talking about what to do with me. None of us want to call an ambulance. Because of the drugs.
Next day my parents take me up the road to the new PromptCare. White coat looks me over, says, “Don’t climb trees,” and sends us on our way. He never even suggests an x-ray. All these years later, I still feel pain from the vertebrae permanently pressed in that night. I still have the scars along my back. They match a set my father brought back from WWII, the result of a Portuguese man- o’-war attack as he swam off the side of his destroyer. Diving alone into uncertain South Pacific waters was his idea, I’m sure. Shipmates had to drag him—half immobilized—back on board.
New craters appear on the moon more frequently than we thought. This has enormous impact on our hopes of living there. According to the reporters. The moon’s getting the stuffing kicked out of it. What are we going to do to help our friend? That’s according to me. All those years ago, the eclipse made ten thousand bit-out suns mosaic the sidewalks beneath the ornamental trees, and I wanted to tape each one down. We’re rich in coins so we should buy a spaceship. What we need is to get a bunch of us to take a deep breath here, shoot up there, then everyone exhale at the same time. Let the atmosphere do the rest. Hot rocks glance off, leaving glitter in the night for the moon people—us, now—to point at and smile as we turn back to making love, to screaming with tendons taut in our neck, fisting sheets into fruit you can hold in the hand.
One autumn back in high school, the PromptCare appears next to our new highway. When I was little, this was all woods, a four-corner stop where my father and I dug an apple sapling growing beside the road—someone probably threw a core out a window. Careful to protect the thin roots, we carried the young tree home, sticking out of our two-door Honda, replanting it in the backyard. Many years later, I pulled the dry stem out of the lawn, still the same height as I was then.
Last time I see that PromptCare, I’m standing in the graveyard next door— cars humming down the highway—wanting to be able to say a few words over my father’s casket, not trusting myself to open my mouth, so staying quiet. Two navy sailors who came to present a flag and play Taps standing to attention to one side. I played Taps in that same cemetery years before. Our high school marching band visited a few each Memorial Day, with me and the other first chair alternating at the solo—“You take Shadyside, I’ll do Restland.” When it comes my turn, the band quiets down, the conductor nods my way, and I step forward, raise my horn and start shaking so much—the sound of my trumpet the only thing floating across the grass, the marble headstones, the crowds of people with their heads bowed low under a bright sky—the mouthpiece actually lifts clean away from my lips with each quiver. I try to think of it as a very deep vibrato and hope the listeners don’t mind.
No, what I shouldn’t do is read Mars once had an atmosphere deep and warm as ours before it boiled away into space right before bed. Of course, I’m going to dream I have to live without Sarah at the top of an apartment house with large holes in the floor, so I can’t walk without fear I’ll drop through. How to fix that? An after-dinner phone ban? Only watch cat videos? Walk around at night and look at the stars themselves? I read a headline telling me new quantum theory says there was no big bang. The universe is finite and existed forever. But what about before? The article had an image of a dark funnel holding galaxies. What’s outside the funnel? I’m dizzy, walking unfamiliar, creaky wood floors, looking through holes onto strangers in their kitchen. Who buys a yellow coffee maker? Never seen that brand of granola before. I don’t want to see into neighbors’ kitchens. I don’t want to worry about falling, walking through my living room. I don’t feel like I’m living in a funnel. Why does anything exist? Why not a single bluegill in a river—like two saucers stuck together—tasting the current, curling behind a stone slick with a green skin. The long ice has finally melted. Warm night air meets the water’s surface. The stream finite and unlimited. The air above what you and I have to breathe. Don’t leave me. Opening the bedroom door to see Sarah’s still there.
CHRISTOPHER CITRO is the author of If We Had a Lemon We’d Throw It and Call That the Sun (Elixir Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Antivenom Poetry Award, and The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy (Steel Toe Books, 2015). His poetry appears in Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, the 2018 Pushcart Prize Anthology, Crazyhorse, Missouri Review, Best New Poets, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Denver Quarterly, Smartish Pace, Witness, and Alaska Quarterly Review. His creative nonfiction appears in Boulevard, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, Essay Daily, Passages North, Bellingham Review, and Colorado Review. He teaches creative writing at SUNY Oswego and lives in Syracuse, New York.